Someone recently asked me, “What is the most inventive thing you’ve done?” Woa. Full stop. Talk about a total brain freeze. You mean out of over 100 projects, patents, client engagements, talks, and workshops… I had to pick just one?
But after only a moment’s hesitation, I realized that there was simply no debate.
It was late 2007, and Steve Jobsian iPhone craze was in full swing. One day, on my way to a client who was developing his first iPhone app, I left my house without my Moleskine notebook, which contained all of the ideas for the meeting. Rather than disappointing my client, I grabbed the first thing that was laying on the table: a pack of 3×5 inch sticky notes and proceeded to try and quickly re-create my idea by sketching just the interface controls. When I showed the result to the CEO, to my astonishment, he seized the pack of stickies, and using it as he would an iPhone, starting enthusiastically jabbing at the hand-drawn “buttons,” saying “see, this is exactly what I mean!”
Eureka! Who could have predicted that an $800 device, the pinnacle of Silicon Valley innovation, technology, and design prowess… Could be approximated with a $1 pack of sticky notes coupled with an active imagination? This discovery was the seed of an idea of $1 Prototype method: an inexpensive, rapid, design-driven experimentation platform for mobile apps, mobile-first responsive web design, and later, wearables: https://youtu.be/EJAbTT5C8_M
$1 Prototype method was born out of the need to solve complex problems for a brand-new, highly context-dependent platform with multi-dimensional physical interactions, for which there were few specific patterns defined. $1 Prototype approach accomplished this by driving down the cost of the experiment virtually to zero, by using the idea of a Minimum Viable Prototypethrough direct engagement with potential customers directly in the field.
For seven years I continued to perfect the $1 Prototype approach through my individual UX design practice, continual feedback from thousands of university students and workshop participants, as well as through gentle encouragement of Steve Krug (the author of Don’t Make Me Think!) In December of 2014 I published the $1 Prototype book, bringing together four essential parts of the $1 Prototype method:
1. Start by defining and storyboarding the use case. This idea was initially introduced to me by Kevin Cheng, the author of See What I Mean. Storyboarding turned out to be the perfect complement to Lean UX rapid prototyping, allowing the UX practitioners to systematically split the “What” from the “How,” and comfortably try a variety of design approaches without compromising the project vision or tying the initial concept to a specific, limiting design implementation. Storyboarding helps align the team around crucial use cases and puts the spotlight on the context of interaction, not just personas.
2. Create a Minimum Viable Prototype appropriate for your level of understanding of the problem. Although simple to create and use, prototypes made from sticky notes are quite sophisticated and have repeatedly proven their value in thousands of field tests. Because sticky notes are naturally made up of physical layers, they are a perfect model of the Digital Paper for Google Android Material Design and iOS 8 and allow for near-effortless testing of complex screen transitions. They also make it possible to model a combination of elaborate hand gestures, touch screen controls, and voice interactions on a low-fi mockup of a digital watch: https://youtu.be/gf5gOq04vRo
3. Proceed to direct user testing in the field. A pack of sticky notes is just the perfect size for field testing, so your design sketch immediately becomes your prototype. Combining these two critical steps into a single user research encounter creates an ideal platform for testing our ideas in context, and rapidly fixing any issues right there in the field. Most importantly, it invites the level of participant discussion appropriate to the level of project completion. If we are near the end of the project, we can use the more fleshed-out prototype to fine-tune the transitions, copy and button placement. If we are struggling with whether the project is worth doing at all, a simple flow with essential controls is all that is necessary for a meaningful conversation.
4. Make UX design and continuous rapid customer testing and evaluation (RITE) the central pillar around which the entire product development process revolves. $1 Prototype benefits the entire Product team by short-circuiting the shouting matches (ahem, “design discussions”) in favor of direct experimentation with real customers. It drives unprecedented team alignment around the agile use cases (“as a user X, I want to do Y, so I get the benefit Z”) which run like a steel cable through the entire product development process: from storyboarding to prototyping, user testing, and implementation. Finally, by keeping prototype fidelity appropriate to the stage of the project, $1 Prototype approach creates slack, separating design from the busy work of design over-documentation.
Early in my career, I remember seeing my father struggle to use a two-button Windows mouse. With his hands calloused from a lifetime of woodworking, I watched this powerful yet gentle, dear man as he kept trying to click the link in a web browser… Eventually giving up altogether. I had a visceral, immediate emotional reaction: helplessness, defeat, anger, and finally, commitment. From that moment, I swore that I will dedicate my life to creating products that will use technology to empower people and bring delight, not misery and helplessness.
Thus $1 Prototype is important to me for both profoundly personal as well as professional reasons. Being able to prototype multiple design directions in mere minutes and iterate the design rapidly right there in the field, with direct customer feedback and without having to come back to the office for extensive re-work, is extraordinarily powerful. For many teams, it’s not just a tool, it’s a game-changer. It creates an unprecedented level of direct connection with a potential customer, often leading to spontaneous, intense co-design sessions with our “experience partners” exploring a variety of unique and innovative design approaches we’d never think of brainstorming in our comfortable office over a couple of lattes.
The $1 Prototype is also about the re-alignment of priorities: instead of elevating our design deliverables on a sort of pedestal, this Minimum Viable Prototype approach reduces the prototype to a conduit for direct, empathetic communication with the potential customer. There is no “magic” in the prototype: it’s merely a conversation starter. Any particular UX deliverable is not an end in itself: it’s a device for cultivating deep, meaningful partnerships. Through the $1 Prototype method, UXers can embrace the role of “Ombudsmen of Innovation,” bridging the gap between business, technology, and customers with the goal of shipping products that positively transform and enrich people’s lives.
Want to practice applying these Lean UX principles at your organization? I teach custom DesignOps workshops and would be honored to speak or teach at your organization. So drop me a line and let me know:
- How is DesignOps doing in your organization?
- What’s working?
- What could be improved?
- What do you want most out of a DesignOps Workshop?
Looking forward to continuing our conversation,